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Hiding in Plain Sight: How two holocaust survivors fooled the Nazis

Friday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Holocaust survivors Toni and John Rinde married.
Posted at 1:37 PM, Jan 26, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, ABC Action News sat down with three generations of one Jewish family carrying the torch to spread awareness and combat antisemitism.

At the Florida Holocaust Museum, in front of a box car that carried Jews to concentration camps, ABC Action News' Michael Paluska talked with the family that included holocaust survivors Toni Rinde and her husband John, along with Toni's brother Stephen Igel and his son Michael Igel.

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Toni was only a couple of years old when her parents decided to give her away to a Good Samaritan. Toni Rinde's rescuer pretended to be her aunt.

"And I was not Jewish. I had a false birth certificate printed; I went to church, learned catechism, became a very nice, good little Catholic girl, said my prayers every evening, and prayed for the safe return of my parents," Toni Rinde said.

"That saved your life?" Paluska said.

"That saved my life," Toni Rinde responded.

"What if they hadn't given you away?"

"You and I probably would not be having this conversation today," Toni Rinde said. "Children were being killed. We were useless. And we were Jewish. And that's a double whammy at that age. Nobody wanted to save a child."

After the war, she met her husband, John. Both were from the same city in Poland. And both relied on their acting skills and fake papers proving they were Catholic to survive.

"We had a priest come and teach us catechism and had to go to church, and confession and communion the works," John Rinde said. "And, we had to play the role to the hilt. And be careful not to spill the beans by accident. The other problem was being able to play the role of, you know, it's like, if you're trying to infiltrate the mafia, right? Or you pretend to be something you are not always questioning. Trying to figure you out and asking tricky questions."

Despite losing too many family members to count, murdered by the Nazis, Toni's parents hid long enough and survived the war. After moving to the United States, Toni's parents had a son, Stephen Igel.

"How is it being the brother of a Holocaust survivor?" Paluska asked.

"I think not only being the brother, but more so being a child of Holocaust survivors, that left a bigger impact on me," Stephen Igel said. "It's incumbent upon us to continue teaching and continue repeating. The old saying of never forget; you need to teach people because you can't do away with history. And unfortunately, we're seeing a lot of history repeat itself."

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Igel's son, Michael, is now the board chair of the Florida Holocaust Museum. As the grandchild to three grandparents that survived the holocaust, Michael knows his life is unique because one wrong move by his grandparents and he doesn't exist.

"I kind of felt this like burden, like, I'm not supposed to be here. What do I do with that?" Michael Igel said. "But then I quickly realized that that's, it's more I'm motivated by that what these people did is inspiring. So I don't feel a survivor guilt. It fuels a fire inside of me to say, well, 'what am I going to do to honor what they did?' And that's why it doesn't feel like a burden; I couldn't be more grateful. But when you're grateful in a way that you can't really repay, the best way you can repay it is by trying to emulate the wonderful thing that they did."

There was a moment when the Nazis nearly discovered his grandparents. A family they'd recently sheltered with was found to be housing the Igel family and ultimately arrested.

"My grandparents used to always say to us, my brother and me, you know, 'it was the worst in humanity. But you must remember and teach people that it was also the best in humanity.' And the way they would illustrate that was with these people. And they used to tell us that they ultimately were arrested for what they did. My grandfather had left a bag in their barn and gone to a different place one night, and it was my grandfather, my grandmother, my great grandfather, and my great uncle left a bag there and intended to come back. That night, these people were arrested. And they were tortured for six weeks because the Nazis found the bag. And said where is this guy? Where are the Igles? Ordinary husband and wife, I always say only on paper, tortured for six weeks and ultimately executed, and they never gave up my grandparents."

In another incident, Michael Igel said his grandparents were tipped off they would be killed. One simple act of humanity saved them again. The wife of a German man protected them.

"My husband said that when you're done teaching me, he's going to kill you; you need to leave," Michael Igel recounted from his grandparents telling the story. "That's what drove my grandfather and grandmother out of the ghetto; they hid, you know, they faked their way out of the ghetto, overpowered some Nazis and hid in the forest, and then joined the partisans and were shepherded around."

"It's not about, oh, this only affects me. And I'm, like, living proof of that to have to kind of reconcile the idea that I wouldn't be alive if these people were tortured for six weeks if all they had to do was what most would have done. Given them up, they didn't do it. And that's why I'm here," Michael Igel said. "But that's, that's just the reason to continue to fight it. And so do I think education is the key; I'm convinced education is the key. There's no doubt in my mind because I watch it. I watch it impact one person at a time. Most people are good people. But one person at a time, one day at a time, we will make it better. Again, I'm living proof of what happens when people do the right thing. How can I not pay that forward? And that's what these lessons do."

With a recent rise in antisemitism, Toni Igel said now is the time to keep telling their story for generations to come.

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"It is possible to happen again. But, you know, we always say Never again, never again, that's become a phrase that's used very loosely, nowadays, throughout a lot of different areas. But the reality is, it must be, never again, that world that we lived through in the 40s can truly never happen again. Otherwise, the world will completely become void of humanity," Toni Rinde said.